Saturday, 25 February 2017

AM I WINNING? By Bruce Higgins

Bruce Higgins
Bruce Higgins is a fellow member of the Wollondilly Branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. 

Am I Winning? was published in our last monthly magazine. It is one person's story about dealing with cancer; not just his own but many of his loved ones and close family.

I found it not only a moving piece but one that sends a message to appreciate every day and make the most of our time with the people we love.

Bruce has given his permission for Am I Winning to be reproduced as a guest post.


“This is nothing like it happens on television and in the movies.” What a ridiculous thing to think of when a doctor advises “All the test results are conclusive. Unfortunately, I have to inform you that you have cancer of the prostate.”

As strange as it seems that is exactly the thought that had entered my mind as the doctor gave his final diagnosis. No dramatic music during the build-up, no pregnant pause before the climactic announcement. Rather just a simple monotone, every day like routine statement of fact.

The doctor continued, “Without treatment you have maybe twelve months. If you can withstand the severity of the radiation treatment required and it is successful you could possibly expect a life span of five to fifteen years,”

This was my own moment of truth with this insidious thing called cancer, however it was not the first time that as a family we had felt its effect. The suffering of the patient is only one part of the devastation it can cause on both the direct and indirect family.

As have most people I had known and heard of people who had passed on from cancer. However, in the main they had been much older; therefore, I guess the shock from these events was not as severe as when it began to attack our generation.

My initial close contact was just over twenty years ago, when I had driven my brother and sister in law to the cancer clinic in Brisbane. I was sitting with them when the final diagnosis was given.

“Inoperable cancer of the stomach, life expectancy six to twelve months.” The instant numbness, shock and confusion these words caused was like nothing I had ever experienced or seen.

Born on a farm, eating wholesome mostly home grown food. She had never smoked or drank alcohol in her life. Forty-three years old with two school age children. How could this possibly happen? Well, nature proved without doubt it could happen. Almost twelve months to the day later she was gone.  

Personally, I had spent numerous hours sitting with her during those twelve months. We had talked at length about plans and wishes for the future that would now amount to nothing. She shared her few regrets but as she would say “Words are superfluous now.” Having a bit of a reputation for being a daredevil I had always thought I possessed a modicum of courage. Sitting with her listening as she quietly discussed her life even as it was slipping away showed me a courage I had not seenbefore and it has inspired me to this day. I have always been in awe of the quiet courage that some people display at this time of their life. What I had possessed was stupidity and unfortunately it has also prevailed to this day.

While I had learned a positive life lesson from her passing unfortunately my brother basically self-destructed. He hit the bottle. Lost all of his ambition and caused his family to become totally dysfunctional. This dysfunction continues to this day. In the words of the family, “he dug himself a hole and climbed in and pulled the dirt in on top of him.”

Was it a personality weakness or a result of the damage this disease can wreak on a family? Who knows?

Another trip to the cancer clinic, another diagnosis. This time my brother in law with throat cancer. Once again, a shocked and shaken wife as well as another school aged child.

As he also came from the country he moved in with us for the duration of is treatment. Daily for ten weeks I would drive him to the hospital for his chemotherapy and radium treatment. As the regimen of the therapy took its toll he became more despondent. It became a daily challenge to get him to agree to dress and prepare for his treatment. Over the period, he was threatened with physical assault as well as the chance of being carried in over my youngest son’s shoulder. As my son is almost two metres tall he was well aware of the probability that it could happen.

During the entire treatment, his sense of humour never totally failed him and I truly feel this helped no end. An example of this was during a well being interview the nurse asked.

“Are you still having sex during therapy?” His instant retort, “I’m living with my sister. That only leaves my brother in law and you can see how bloody ugly he is.” Finally, he was declared in remission and then at five years cancer free.

A couple of years after he was pronounced clear he rang and asked my wife and I to go down to visit. It was then he had informed us that the cancer was back and treatment was useless. Two weeks later he was dead. True to his sense of humour his last rebellious act was for me to announce that we were to have a beer at every pub in town on the way to the wake. By now I was becoming convinced that this thing was unbeatable.

Two years later came the start of this story with my own diagnosis. After the disbelief that the family could be hit a third time I was given forty-eight hours to make my decision as to whether I would undergo treatment or simply let nature take its course. There was no doubt as to my decision. We made a pact that we would still have fun, and as much as possible treat the entire thing with disdain. Thirteen weeks of daily radiation followed. During this time, we laughed and joked with the staff and other patients. I fell deeply in love with a number of radiologists as well as my oncologist, all unreciprocated I might add. In short, we attempted to make the very best of a bad thing. On one occasion the dietician rang at about ten one night to check that I was eating well. When my wife told her that I was having a big mac and a stubby of beer she simply hung up. Six months later I was informed I was in remission and my wife and I started planning celebration trip. We were going to drive to Victoria filling in the couple of gaps we still hadn’t travelled.

Six days later we again heard those dreaded words. This time it was my wife of forty-eight years. “Advanced pancreatic cancer. Inoperable and virtually untreatable. Life expectancy six months at the most.”

Four times lightning had struck. Unbelievable. No there was absolutely no doubt. Following the initial disbelief and shock we made the decision to do home palliative care.

What followed was the most terrifyingly beautiful and amazing six months of my life. We laughed, joked, teased and at times talked brutally honestly with each other. Most people I know who have lost a life partner have regrets. “I should have said that, I meant to tell them this.” We did it all, there was not a thing left unsaid. Her courage inspired me to be capable of administering the treatment required. Never would I have believed that I was capable of giving the injections of morphine and other comfort drugs in the way that was required. The routine was twenty-four hours a day but I would have willingly done it forever had it been possible. One of my proudest achievements in life was that I was able to keep her at home until twenty-four hours before she passed. She had actually sat with the minister and arranged her own funeral right down to the music and prayers. We had both been threatened with a life time of haunting had her instructions not been carried out in the finest detail.

Following her passing I don’t mind admitting that I struggled for a while. You can’t just erase fifty years of your life. It was at this time that I was introduced to writing by a very good friend. I have found it therapeutic as I get to recall some of the most stupid and humorous moments of my life and believe me there have been a few. I also spent a fair amount of time talking with my younger brother who had lost his wife. I must admit that at times I used him as my ‘what not to do’ model.

Just over four months ago, the news came through that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. He passed away five weeks ago. So here I am. Sister in law, brother in law, wife and now brother. I often ask myself, why am I the one that is still here. I am not bitter or mad at the world as I learned at age eleven what will be will be but I don’t think I would be normal if I didn’t question things at times.

In the main I live each day as it comes and make the very best of it. Of one thing I am certain. Every day is precious so I enjoy every minute of it and always go to bed looking forward to what tomorrow might bring and what I might learn. Life is always an experience that we only have once.

For all of this on the odd morning as day breaks the thought crosses my mind. ‘Am I winning? Who knows?’


Since writing Am I Winning? Bruce has two more people close to him diagnosed with cancer or undergoing treatment making eight people in his close circle.

His message is that every day is worth making the best.

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